The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text

By Anthony C. Thiselton | Go to book overview

III. Moral Issues Which Demand
a Clear-Cut Verdict (5:1–6:20)

Although we enter a new major section of this epistle, a link readily emerges with 1:10–4:21 because “the man who committed the act of πορνεία in ch. 5 has contributed to community divisiveness (5:2, 6).”1 The issue of his expulsion might serve to restore unity, although it also raises questions about community boundaries. However surprising it may seem in our more cerebral age, Paul appears more ready to tolerate “a mixed church” which includes those who have doctrinal problems about the resurrection (15:33-35 is addressed to people within the congregation) than to allow persistent immorality of a notorious kind to compromise the corporate identity of the community (5:5, 7, 13).2 Further, just as Mitchell identifies a continuing thread from 1 Corinthians 1–4 in terms of the welfare of the community and its unity, so Fee, followed by South, regards 5:1-13 and 6:1– 20 as test cases for Paul’s authority as it has been implicitly entailed in the allusions to apostleship, fatherhood, planting, coordinating building, and providing a model of cruciform gospel proclamation.3 In an earlier study I argued for a third link, namely, between the “boasting” which was associated with “freedom from the law” and the realized eschatology of 4:5 and 8:13.4 From a compositional point of view, various continuities of theme and argument emerge.

On the other hand, this chapter begins a second main block (or a third, if we count 1:1-9 as a block of material) or topic. Chapters 5 and 6 expound what for Paul constitute clear-cut moral and ethical issues. In this respect this main block stands in contrast to the material in 7:1–11:1, which no less concerns matters of ethics, but in the latter case “grey areas” where much depends on situations and circumstances. If 7:1–11:1 legitimate some form of “situation ethics,” 5:1–6:20 demonstrate that certain moral principles stand above and beyond situational variables. Depending on the ethical content of the moral issue, therefore, Paul expounds both an absolutist ethic and a situational ethic. On the first he is unwilling to negotiate; on the second, negotiation, dialogue, and “what if…?” remain all-important. and Paul combines a situational ethic with

1. Mitchell, Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 112.

2. Witherington, Conflict and Community, 151-61.

3. Fee, First Epistle, 194-96; and South, Disciplinary Practices in Pauline Texts, 25-26.

4. Thiselton, “The Meaning of Σάρξ in 1 Cor. 5:5: A Fresh Approach,” 204-28.

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